Asia Bibi and the continued problem of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Credit: Nicolas Raymond
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The Supreme Court of Pakistan recently suspended the execution of Asia Bibi – the Christian mother-of-five convicted on alleged blasphemy charges that reportedly started over a glass of water.

It sounds positive, as historically Pakistani courts seemed to be under enormous pressure whenever it came to blasphemy related cases. One of the judges of the same court, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was assassinated in 1997 after he acquitted two Christians, Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih, in a blasphemy case because of insufficient evidence. According to various reports, 1274 people have been charged with blasphemy between 1986 and 2010 – 51 accused have been murdered before finishing their respective trials. With that in mind, it is possible to see how the above potentially influenced the decision to uphold Asia Bibi’s death penalty conviction last year (without any credible evidence).

The above numbers signify a horrific picture for the fate of anyone accused of breaching blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Whatever the courts decide about the case, the religious fanatics rarely allow them to survive. Not only are the accused at risk; but their supporters and lawyers are targets and killers are sometimes glorified. Under these circumstances, no one should think that Asia Bibi will be out of danger following this development.

An interesting trend to observe is the silence of religious and political leaders. Not a single statement of support came from any political party in Pakistan or from ‘self-claimed’ moderate religious leaders. Although some 171,268 Pakistanis have signed a petition demanding justice for Asia Bibi on the ‘Call For Mercy’ website; but unfortunately no large solidarity protests took place in the country. So far, the extremist elements in the society have been successful in creating an environment of fear to shut down debate on the controversial blasphemy laws which have affected lives of hundreds of Pakistanis – predominantly of poor backgrounds and belonging to minority faith groups.

High profile murders in recent years have silenced more rational voices in the blasphemy debate. In 2011, Governor Salman Taseer, was killed by his own bodyguard, Taseer supported Bibi’s case.

Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was next in line to be brutally murdered in Islamabad, after demanding procedural changes to blasphemy laws. Pakistan’s ex-ambassador to United States, Sherry Rehman, was lucky to survive; although an FIR was registered against her in 2013 as she demand changes in the laws in order to protect the innocent people.

Those accused of blasphemy include teenagers, elderly people and even those with mental health issues. But there is an absence of mercy for the accused regardless of guilt or innocence.

This sends out a chilling message to the wider society and makes it easier to harass and target poor citizens who have no resources to defend themselves.

The environment created by the atrocities of religious fanatics and by the cowardly silence of wider society has made it immensely difficult to initiate debate on the flaws of blasphemy laws and protecting the innocent victims.

This is alarming situation has put people at great risk – especially for the minority communities targeted because of their faith (as in the case of Asia Bibi). The contemporary environment of fear is allowing the radicals to perpetuate their extremist narratives and to shut down any dialogue to reform blasphemy laws.

Pakistan is a democratic country created to safeguard the religious freedoms of Muslim minorities of India. The history of Islam is full of examples of forgiveness, mercy and protection of society’s vulnerable. But the culture of fear and violence created by religious fanatics is not in line with the religious and the cultural values of Pakistan.

It is the first and foremost responsibility of Pakistan’s government to work with the religious leaders and civil society actors on raising awareness about the issues concerning blasphemy laws. The state and society cannot surrender to a handful of hate-filled fanatics, devoid of the peaceful teachings of Islam. Promoting and protecting rights of the vulnerable in society is the legacy of Islam and part of the founding principles of Pakistan. Reclaiming those values from extremists is challenging but it is a cause worth fighting for.

Rehman Anwer (@rehmananwer) is an interfaith and peace activist currently working for Faith Matters and Tell MAMA.

 

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